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Everyone's Watching Warner

NFC: Banged-up Ram quarterback needs to be on target, not become one, in championship game against Eagles.


St. Louis Ram quarterback and NFL most valuable player Kurt Warner has sore ribs. He needs extra padding added to his flak jacket. He might need a pain-killing shot before today's NFC championship game between the Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles.

Eagle defensive end Hugh Douglas owes the NFL $35,000 and would be wise to route his flights away from Chicago O'Hare airport after his big hit knocked Bear quarterback Jim Miller out of last Sunday's NFC playoff game at Soldier Field. Douglas says his hit was legal. Douglas says Miller moved and was fair game.

No, Douglas says, he will not be seeking out Warner. Unless Warner moves.

This game will be played at the newly named Edward Jones Dome (which was, until Friday, the Dome at America's Center and which used to be TWA Dome). And Edward Jones isn't a who, it is a financial firm.

The Rams (15-2) won the Super Bowl two years ago. The Eagles (13-5) haven't gone to the Super Bowl since 1981 and have never won it. Another Super Bowl trip is up for grabs today.

So, quick. Who is the Rams' backup quarterback?

His name is Jamie Martin. His college career took place at Weber State. He has been in the league seven years. He has been with the Rams four years. He is 32 and is from Arroyo Grande, Calif. He has one NFL start to his credit. He probably won't matter. Martin probably won't play. Douglas probably won't take a shot at Warner's bruised ribs. Will he?

"Warner vulnerable? I don't see him as being a real vulnerable guy," Douglas says. "He's a big guy and he moves well for a big guy. It's going to be hard to get around him. But I brung a big lunch, people. I am going to be there all day.

"Put it like this. If Kurt is in the vicinity, Kurt is going to get hit. But I am not going to go out of my way looking for Kurt Warner. Whoever is around, they are going to get hit."

So Warner might get hit. Martin might play.

And if he does? The Rams have the second-best player in the league. They have Marshall Faulk, who rushed for 1,382 yards this season and who finished second to Warner in the MVP voting. Faulk is more than a tailback. He is a fine blocker, a reliable receiver, a respected leader.

Martin could hand off to Faulk. Or he could throw to the best receiving corps in the league. He can trust Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim, Torry Holt and Ricky Proehl to make all the catches, run all the right routes.

It won't all be up to the offense. The Ram defense finished No. 1 in the NFC. The Eagles have been touted as the great defensive team in this game because of Douglas, an effective blitz and a talented secondary, but it was the Rams who had more sacks and more takeaways than the Eagles. The Eagle defense was ranked No. 4 in the NFC. The Ram defense forced Green Bay into eight turnovers last weekend, but all the pub went to Douglas because he knocked out Miller.

With new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith and eight newcomers to the defense, the Rams have tried hard to get rid of the reputation as a team that can only score and never stop anyone else from scoring.

As defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina says, "I think we've set the tone of our defense, thanks to Lovie. We play hard, we play fast. We rotate so much, we're always fresh. We're always running to the ball, pressuring the quarterback, running to the running back. If it's not good enough, then it's not good enough. But I think that in our defensive room, everybody thinks we're good enough to stop anybody."

Donovan McNabb, the Eagle quarterback, will have to be stopped. It sounds easy, stopping one guy, but the Bears couldn't do it last week.

Ram Coach Mike Martz says that what most impresses him about McNabb is that the third-year quarterback "is getting better every single game. He is better today than he was yesterday."

McNabb was spectacular in leading the Eagles past Chicago. The Bears couldn't catch McNabb, couldn't disrupt his focus. When he was out of the pocket, McNabb located his receivers and made precise throws.

St. Louis cornerback Dexter McCleon looks at McNabb and sees "his ability to buy time in the pocket. Donovan has the ability to escape and still make the strong throw downfield.

"You cannot relax for a second because a guy like Donovan, as you all saw last weekend, can buy time and deliver the ball. Just like that."

Smith, the defensive coordinator, might assign a spy to tail McNabb. Safety Kim Herring may get the job or possibly Tommy Polley, who had two interceptions against Green Bay's Brett Favre last weekend.

The Rams beat the Eagles, 20-17 in overtime, in the season opener in Philadelphia. McNabb was mostly contained.

"But [in that game]," Ram All-Pro cornerback Aeneas Williams says, "Donovan would stand more in the pocket. Now, if he doesn't see what he likes, he is more willing to take off and run with the ball. Not just run, but he is also looking to make plays."

McNabb says that his confidence is high now. He is not bragging. He is not boasting. He is just stating a fact. "We, as a team, are playing well right now," McNabb says. "It is all coming together for all of us, myself included. We're a young team, we had some rough spots during the season, but we trust each other now. We're ready."

Warner says his ribs are sore but when the game starts, he won't notice the pain. And one more thing. "We're ready to play," Warner says. "All of us."



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